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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

David Lutken stars as folk legend Woody Guthrie in the Rep's "Woody Sez."

In Arts & Entertainment

Woody Guthrie is best known for hits like "This Land Is Your Land" and "The Ballad of Tom Joad."

Star/creator David Lutken talks "Woody Sez"


Folk music had a great 2013, with suspender-clad bands like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers hitting it big, and the Coen Brothers' folk-infused film "Inside Llewyn Davis" in the hunt for some Oscar nominations. It looks like that streak will continue on into 2014 with the help of one of the genre's founding fathers.

"Woody Sez," the story of folk hero Woody Guthrie and his fascist-killing musical machine, hits the Rep's Stackner Cabaret starting Friday night and running through March 9. The show is a passion project for David M. Lutken, its star, music director, choreographer and "co-devisor." OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with Lutken to see what he has to say about "Woody Sez."

OnMilwaukee.com: What drew you originally to the character of Woody Guthrie?

David Lutken: Well, I guess quite a few factors that all boil down to I started playing and singing all different kinds of music as a young person, about when I was three, four or five years old. I had older brothers and sisters who played musical instruments. When I was about seven, somebody handed me the mandolin, and I started to play. But the influences of those times, in school and in the world in the late '50s and early '60s, Woody Guthrie was in there. So he's been on my radar for a very, very long time.

Many years later, when I got into the theater working as an actor/musician doing many different shows – including other shows about Woody Guthrie and folk music – I became interested more and more in the story of his life. So that's really what I've tried to do with this show, which is different from others. This is my attempt at a biography.

OMC: What, for you, is the hardest part of the role?

DL: I guess the hardest part is getting in tune at the beginning of the evening. But the other hardest part is just trying to do a biographical thing in the theater which is also substantially narrative. About 70 percent of the script is mostly taken from direct quotes from Woody Guthrie, either from his column Woody Sez, his autobiography "Bound For Glory" or a long essay pamphlet he wrote called "American Folksong." Those are the three main sources, I guess.

The hardest part of all of that is working as much of his life in as possible in a way that makes sense to the audience. Not only was devising that difficult, but doing that every night is difficult too because we have to make sure we're taking the audience along with us on a story that's way too big to do in two hours.

OMC: What was the biggest thing you wanted to bring across?

DL: It's kind of a complicated description. I majored in college in Greek, and storytelling, of course, was very big for the Greeks, as it was for Woody Guthrie. So I kind of tried to put several elements together that I thought would make great theater.

Number one is Woody Guthrie and his life story told primarily by himself. Number two is the greatest epic song that Woody wrote, in his own opinion, was "The Ballad of Tom Joad." I tried to put that together with its main source, which of course is "The Grapes of Wrath," and the fact that John Steinbeck, in writing that book, was really drawing upon epic poetry of Greek, Roman and quite a few other sources in his structure.

So the play begins with a quote from "The Odyssey" because, to me, his life and his relationships was a lot like Odysseus, which is also a lot like Tom Joad. And I think Woody saw some of that. I know it sounds like a big mish-mosh, but that's what I tried to do.

OMC: Would you say he's kind of like Odysseus in the fact that it seemed like a lot of things were against him, or just in terms of travelling around a lot?

DL: Both. I would say he was a lot like Odysseus in the same way Tom Joad was a lot like Odysseus. There were a lot of things against him, but he was always headed for his goal. But, in addition to that, he was a restless person. In the famous poem that Alfred Tennyson wrote about Odysseus, he says, "I cannot rest from travel." Woody was very much like that. Some of it was his own doing, and some of it was circumstances – the Dust Bowl and things like that.

OMC: Why do you think Woody Guthrie still connects to today?

DL: It's been pretty amazing over the past six years. We started this show at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007, and we've actually done it more in Europe and abroad than we have the United States. We're catching up in the United States, but for the first four years, we were pretty much overseas all the time.

It's been an interesting journey, and a great part of it is to see reactions to Woody Guthrie and his material as they see it today. How that has changed from the 1930s to the early 21st century, how it changed from 2007 to 2013 and how it has not changed.

OMC: Why do think that was that the play seemed to hit so much faster and bigger overseas than in America?

DL: In America, people love Woody Guthrie or they like Woody Guthrie or they don't like Woody Guthrie because they think he was a communist and a traitor (some people). Outside of the United States, Woody Guthrie is very much viewed as an American, with all of his warts and bumps. He is a part, as they are concerned, of American culture, as much as somebody like Louis Armstrong. He has become a giant in the representation of American musical culture in the first half of the 21st century.

OMC: What was one song that you really wanted to get into this production but you just weren't able to, whether it was a rights thing or whether it was a matter of you couldn't get it into the story …

DL: Woody Guthrie said that his greatest song was "The Ballad of Tom Joad," so it plays pretty prominently in our show. As far as David Lutken is concerned, I think the greatest song Guthrie ever wrote was a song called "Pretty Boy Floyd." And "Pretty Boy Floyd" is not in the show. That was a tough decision for me to make.

"Woody Sez" actually came from a children's show I wrote called "This Land Is Your Land," which in turn was based upon a script written in 1956 by Millard Lampell, who was one of the Almanac Singers. It was written as a tribute concert for Woody while he was still alive but unable to play anymore. Woody's old manager, Harold Leventhal, gave me that script and said, "You should do something with this." So first, I wrote a children's show, and "Pretty Boy Floyd" is in there.

But as things kept evolving in the early 2000s, I finally came around with Mr. Leventhal's help to write a show for grown ups. I just couldn't find a way to put "Pretty Boy Floyd" in there because of the constraint that I had given myself by writing a story about Woody's life and choosing "The Ballad of Tom Joad" as the framework that I would hook everything to. It was one of those things: "Tom Joad" and "Pretty Boy Floyd," there's not enough room in this town for both of us. When I chose one, I had to relinquish the other.

It's a real shame because the line from "Pretty Boy Floyd" that everybody loves, which is one of the great lines of protest song poetry of all time, is "Through this world I ramble/I've seen lots of funny men/Some will rob you with a six gun/And some with a fountain pen." That's the one that everybody quotes because it really is head and shoulders above just about all of the rest of English literature when it comes to making a good point in a pithy statement.


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